Page last updated at 15:28 GMT, Friday, 9 January 2009

The hunt for the Next Big Thing at CES 2009

By Tom Dunmore
Editor-in-chief, Stuff Magazine

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Stuff Magazine's Tom Dunmore's top gadgets at CES

Every January, the technology world descends on the vast, sprawling Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Companies big and small announce thousands of new products - while we journalists do our best to discover the Next Big Thing.

For the last five years, the CES buzz has been around high-definition: first it was HD-Ready TVs, then Full HD, then hi-def camcorders. Last year, the big story was the victory of Blu-ray over its rival hi-def disc format, HD-DVD.

But in 2009, there's little left to say about HDTV. Yes, there are better-than-HD systems like Sony's 4K and Toshiba's Cell TV, but the truth is that Full HD is good enough for all but the most palatial living rooms. So what's next?

Everything is 3D

The answer, judging by the Samsung, LG and Sony stands, is 3DTV. The 3D screens are everywhere - but most systems still require the viewer to wear special glasses, which feels a little too gimmicky to me.

Fortunately, there are some glasses-free 3D displays in development, and an increasing number of high-quality movies to watch on them.

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3D television tour in Vegas with Stuff magazine's Tom Dunmore

Disney and Dreamworks have made commitments to produce movies in 3D, and George Lucas is reportedly working on a 3D remaster of Star Wars. A growing number of computer games can be played in 3D, too.

If you fancy sticking with 2D, you could consider enhancing your viewing experience in other ways, of course. Many new TVs are integrating Yahoo's 'web widgets' into their sets, providing a sofa-friendly way of checking the weather, news or Facebook updates.

Hush

More likely to receive universal approval is the Dolby Volume feature integrated into Toshiba's TVs, which limits sudden increases in volume - such as infuriatingly loud adverts. The system will also allow us to watch action movies late at night without waking up the neighborhood.

That's if the neighbors can sleep, of course. It seems that two worries are keeping many exhibitors up at night: the environmental backlash and the global recession.

The consumer electronics industry clearly wants to avoid the fate of the American car market, which relied for too long on gas-guzzling cars.

Low-powered gadgets are the order of the day, but sometimes it's the little things that make a big difference; more than one manufacturer is proudly boasting that their products feature a planet-saving 'off' button.

And while economic woes are forcing cuts to research and development budgets, it's refreshing to see that there are still some truly desirable, innovative products.

Last year, Asus redefined the market for mobile computers, with its lightweight, cheap Eee PC netbook. Now it's building on that success by adding touch-sensitive tablets and home PCs to its Eee range.

Watch with envy

LG seems to be having fun, too, with a mobile phone watch that would turn Dick Tracy green with envy.

And smaller companies are still turning out some ingenious gear like Urban Tool's Bluetooth Pillow, which will lull you to sleep with wireless music, and AceCAD's paper notepad that will digitally capture a copy of your scribbles and email them to your computer.

But my highlights of this year's show come in the form of a two-pronged attack on the dominance of Apple (a notable absentee from this, and every other, CES).

First up, Sony's X-Series Walkman offers better sound quality than the iPod Touch, plus built-in noise cancelling and a supremely bright touchscreen OLED display. It'll never match the runaway success of the iPod, but at least it does something to redress the balance.

Tom Hanks at CES 2009
Tom Hanks speech at Sony's keynote address was distinctly 'off message'

Even better, Palm is using CES to launch the first smartphone that I would honestly described as a match for the Apple iPhone. Perhaps more than a match.

The Palm Pre shares all the iPhone's neat user-interface touches, but adds a host of new features - like copy-and-paste, a removable battery, a slide-down QWERTY keyboard and a decent 3 megapixel camera with flash. After five years producing mediocre products, it's great to see Palm back on form. The markets agreed: in the hour following the Pre's announcement, Palm's stock rose 35%.

But the most memorable moment of my CES wasn't a new gadget - it was Tom Hank's off-piste performance at Sony CEO Howard Stringer's keynote speech.

Wheeled on to add a touch of celebrity glamour to the event, Hanks made it obvious he was reading a script "written by a lowly marketing executive", and refused to tow the "Sony is everywhere" line, noting that the teleprompters were made by LG.

After the hilarious performance, Howard Stringer joked: "I took a risků it failed".

Let's hope the tech world can afford to take a few more risks at next year's CES.

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